The Racist History of Telephone Poles

Caira Wynn Blackwell
9 min readJul 16, 2019

The first telephone pole to be erected was done so in 1844 by a man named Samuel Morse, who had been compensated by the U.S. Congress to send messages more quickly from one destination to another. True to task, Morse sent the first telegraph from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore and back with the message “What hath God wrought?” in Morse Code. After such success, telephones became staples in the houses of upper to middle class white families. This meant that poles were rising up from the ground by the thousands on both coasts, a fact that angered many.

According to Eula Biss’s “Time and Distance Overcome,” anywhere a telephone pole was set to be put up, there were homeowners and business owners ready to saw them right back down. It was what the New York Times called a “War on Telephone Poles” in 1889. They didn’t want them because they were ugly, a nuisance to the eye that seemed to grow from the ground in a misshapen, barren kind of way, a tree born dead that sprouted multitudes of warped, deranged limbs that stretched beyond any distances than were ever before imaginable. Biss also comments on the deeper issue that the poles brought about: this age-old American fear for “private property and a reluctance to surrender it to a shared utility.” Americans, in the rise of the telephone poles, were not strictly fighting for the aesthetics of their country, but for the ideology that collectivity was the downfall of the American way.

However, the pushback against invention was no match for the novelty of the invention itself, and by the turn of the century, there were more telephones than bathtubs in America. Any town with a population exceeding one hundred thousand people was connected through telephone poles, the green-less trees risen and strung, a wire for each telephone. Thomas Edison said that telephones eliminated “time and space, and brought the human family in closer touch.” Which is true, in a sense.

Emily Ann Thompson’s The Soundscapes of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America talks about the literal acoustics of the first telephones. In this book, Thompson tells her reader how, when two people talk to each other face-to-face, the distance between them very literally warps in transit from speaker to listener. The acoustics of the space around two people talking, as well…

Caira Wynn Blackwell

Caira W. Blackwell has been published in RaceBaitr, The Knockturnal, Nylon, Confluence, and Okayplayer, and has a published novel on Amazon.